For centuries, Vietnamese people have burned incense to mark important occasions and celebrations, and as a way to pray for and remember their ancestors.
In Vietnam, as in so many other places in the world, incense burning is an ancient cultural and religious ritual. Steeped in symbolism, the act of burning incense is often seen as a prayer rising with fragrant smoke to heaven. Incense smoke becomes a bridge linking the material and spiritual worlds.
Every year, the village of Quang Phu Cau near Hanoi turns a radiant shade of pink as the holiday of Tet – the lunar New Year – approaches. During Tet, the Vietnamese offer millions of sticks of incense, both in the country’s Buddhist temples and on ancestral altars at home. Many of these are made in Quang Phu Cau. For the incense workers, the job is ‘heart work’ – born from their hearts, rather than simply made by their hands. Making incense has been the trade of the village for as long as anyone can remember, and the villagers still follow the traditional process.
In a technique called ‘splitting the foot of the incense stick’, bamboo bark is first trimmed to length, soaked, peeled, and split in half, and then in half again, until the thin sticks measure less than 3mm square. The sticks are then wet and dried in the sun so they will burn more easily. Next, the bases of the sticks are dyed pink to make them more attractive to the eye, and again dried in the sun. Now they are coated in incense paste, which is made from sticky bark powder from the o duoc tree and a fragrant powder of agarwood, blackbutt and cinnamon wood. The sticks are rolled in the mixture to coat them and then dried one last time.
Pure fragrance, pure mind
Offering incense at an altar is an almost universal practice in spiritual traditions around the world. At the most basic level, incense is believed to purify the space and create an elevated mood. For Buddhists like the Vietnamese, the act can have particular symbolic meanings.
For example, three sticks burned together might signify the Three Treasures – the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha. Burning an incense stick to produce aromatic smoke reflects the need to burn away our negative qualities in order to reveal the pure self within. The fragrance of incense, derived from natural sources, inspires the development of a pure mind. The aroma spreads far and wide, just as a good deed benefits the whole world. As the incense rises and dissolves into the air, it is also a subtle reminder of the transient nature of existence.